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  Bring On The Snakes  
  Crooked Fingers  
Release Date:
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It is an understatement to say that Crooked Fingers' self-titled debut from last year was well received. In fact it was almost universally praised, had critical acclaim lauded upon it from every quarter of the industry and regularly listed on best-of-year reviews. Honestly, I've yet to see a bad review of the disc. The worst I can find (and I spend some time scouring the internet for reviews and new music) is actually Tracers' addendum to my review here. I think it safe to say that Eric Bachmann has officially established his latest project.

As such it was somewhat surprising to see a second album released so quickly on the heels of the first. Usually, especially with a universally loved disc, an artist will allow the previous material to remain as calling card for a couple of years (of five, if you're R.E.M.) I have a theory that this is what often leads to "sophomore slumps" as phenomena. An artist will crank out a well received debut and then spend years on the follow-up material, tweaking every chord a hundred times over trying to recreate the magic of the debut, usually resulting in a canned, pre-fabbed sort of feel. Clearly Bachmann is not concerned about this. It's been hardly a year between discs, and if anything, the structure of that little pet theory is reversed in this case.

Bring On the Snakes is a better album than Crooked Fingers. That may sound odd, considering the fact that I dropped a perfect 7-Sponger on the self-titled disc this time last year, but I think it's true. As Tracers points out in her rebuttal review of that disc, there was a certain forced quality to some of the orchestration and strings. My argument at the time, and still, is that that forced orchestration is only an impediment if you happened to have caught Bachmann's live set during the year when he was perfecting the material of the eventual release. Crooked Fingers does not live up to that live set. But honestly, I don't know of anything that might live up to those shows, so I think the point is moot.

Bring On the Snakes is a much more cohesive album than Crooked Fingers. The songs are more eloquently arranged, the track ordering is better designed and the album, start to finish, starts and stops much less than the debut. More importantly, I think, gone are the falsetto vocals of Juliette and Broken Man, replaced with a version of Bachmann much more comfortable with his own voice. Ever since his Archers Of Loaf days Bachmann has had a tendency to pitch up to forced falsetto on his "sensitive" numbers, a sharp contrast to the frog bellows of his beer-hall rants. Crooked Fingers can easily be chopped into "Eric is singing a bawdy shanty" and "Eric is in his serenade mode" halves by the voice he chooses to sing in alone.

He's apparently over that now. The natural voice he displayed on She Spread Her Legs and Flew Away, as well as the verses of Sad, Sad Stars is the only voice he uses on Bring On the Snakes. It is the happy medium between his Pogues-y ribaldry and his quivering attempt at twee. Yes, it bears an uncanny resemblance to Neil Diamond as indigent panhandler, but it's a solid instrument, and one Bachmann finally seems comfortable with.

The songs themselves are not far removed from the material on the debut. Okay, they're virtually identical in tone and placement. The same formal characters inhabit these stories, as did those. Broken lovers, addicted users, dregs, and the walking wounded, all gathered together in Eric's Tavern At the End of the World. The Rotting Strip launches the disc with a now familiar bent: "Blurry eyes, half bent, and I can't take you sober..." and we're off again into Bachmann's sketchy, filthy world. Devil's Train continues us down the tracks. Sad, Sad Love brings us back again, it seems, to the self-immolating Juliette for another visit to lovers doomed from the start. Doctors Of Deliverance, perhaps the best song from either disc, runs the gestalt of both discs into a brilliant moment of hopelessness and despair that still stupidly meets every new day with bright eyes.

Of course, it would be misleading to lead you to believe that Bring On the Snakes is nothing but a repackaging of the same. Both albums work from a unified theme, but Bachmann continues his subtle expansions of sound and scope. Apparently the need to continually experiment with texture is the one thing he carried with him out of the Archers. Gone are the strings and backing pomp of Crooked Fingers. The multitude of backing musicians are replaced (or rightfully returned to, for those of us graced with his 1999-era live performances) the domain of Eric, his guitar, and his sampler. He also plays a stunningly subtle electrochime throughout the disc. Other than occasional percussion the only guest musicians are Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor (of the Bachmann produced Azure Ray) lending harmonic vocals on Rotting Strip and Sad Love, respectively. The criminally under-appreciated Laird Dixon (he of Sharkquest non-fame) offers "ghost guitar" on the latter of those tunes as well. Otherwise it's just Eric and his own ghosts, all produced by Brian Causey, a partnership that seems to benefit both halves geometrically.

All told, I can't find a thing wrong with this disc. In retrospect, I might ought to have given Crooked Fingers 6 Sponges. It does start and stop a bit. But I take some solace in the knowledge that I'm not the only one who was floored by that disc, and as such, I am left with no alternative but to give Bring On the Snakes the same 7 Sponges I gave the debut. As I said, if anything, Bachmann has improved this disc over its predecessor. And that was quite the feat.

Related Links:
  A review of Crooked Fingers self-titeld debut.  

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